A thousand-mile journey by canoe

Having spent a week last summer sea kayaking along the coast of northern British Columbia, I was looking forward to Ivan Doig’s The Sea Runners. Doig is a regional writer best known for his books about Montana, notably his novel Dancing at the Rascal Fair and a memoir of ranching life, The House of Sky.

223406The Sea Runners, published in 1982, is an early work that builds on a footnote of history. (Doig earned a Ph.D. in history before turning to novel-writing.) It is the story of four indentured Swedes who escaped New Archangel (Russia’s settlement where Sitka, Alaska sits today) by paddling a canoe to Astoria, Oregon in the winter and spring of 1853.

Doig’s historical research of Russian America shows. He provides a vivid description of the bleakness of New Archangel as he develops the back-story of the four men: how they got there, why they so desperately wanted to leave and how they planned their escape.

The last three-quarters of the novel deal with the arduous journey down the coast and the men’s struggles to work as a team. The descriptions of the journey are nautically and geographically accurate; you get the sense that Doig sailed along that rugged coast before embarking on his writing. But missing for me were the details that create verisimilitude, those bits of first-hand experience that persuade the reader to suspend disbelief.

For example, Doig tells how the men preserved venison by boiling it in saltwater, but he fails to describe the taste of it after weeks of soggy travel. He describes the rocky islands of the Inside Passage but omits any mention of the abundant sea life at tide line. He captures the frustration of paddling against high seas and headwinds but provides little detail of the natural world, such as the frantic flapping of seabirds over schools of fish or the yelp of sea otter pups left by their mothers tethered to beds of kelp. The Swedes would surely have noted such things, just as they would have felt the chill and chafing of wet woolens, the effects of scurvy after weeks of bad diet, and the sores and aches from paddling a heavy cedar canoe for hours, days, weeks on end—all things Doig largely disregards.

Like South, Ernest Shackleton’s superb memoir of his failed expedition to the South Pole, or Alive, Piers Paul Read’s riveting account of the air-crash survivors in the Andes, this should have been a story of survival and extreme physical endurance. Instead, Doig concentrates on the differences between the four men, their petty bickering and clashes as they vie for leadership.

Purple and orange sea stars at tide line, British Columbia
Photo credit: P. Lane

In what for me was the weakest aspect of the novel, Doig chose, perhaps for color, to write in an oblique, almost archaic style which impedes the narrative. Here’s an example:

What brought down Melander’s decision in favor of Karlsson, however, was a feather of instant remembered from shipboard. Karlsson had been borne to Alaska on the same schooner as Melander, and Melander recalled that just before sailing when others of the indentured group, the torsion of their journey-to-come tremendous in them at the moment, were talking large of the bright success ahead, what adventure the frontier life would furnish and how swiftly and with what staggering profit their seven years of contract with the Russians would pass, Karlsson had listened, given a small mirthless smile and a single shake of his head, and moved off along the deck by himself.

And another:

One further impression of the slender man’s interesting constancy also was stored away in Melander. The observation that Karlsson visited more often to the women in the native village than did any of the merchants of wind who perpetually bragged in the barracks about their lust. Or as Melander mused it to himself, the mermaids had hold of Karlsson’s towrope but he didn’t go around yipping the news.

Doig’s stylistic decision extends to dialogue as well. He may have intended to convey the idiomatic speech of the Swedes, but it comes off sounding like a bad pirate imitation:

“Wennberg, Wennberg. Always ready to bone the guff out of me, aye? Tell me a thing, how do we come by this honor of having you in our crew? What sugar was it that kept you on at New Archangel past your years?”

Wennberg studied the tall leader. Then he spat to one side and muttered, “Serving for Rachel.”

Melander tugged an ear. “Lend us that again?”

The prose is all too overwrought, as if colorful language might cover up a lack of detail from the historical record or first-hand experience. It’s a common problem with historical fiction, as Henry James noted long ago. The result is a story that would have been better served if it had been more plainly told.

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¡Viva la revolución!

villa bannerI’ve never been much of a graphic novel fan, mainly because I prefer to have an author’s words ignite my imagination. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the new collaboration by Mexico’s most highly regarded crime novelist, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and the illustrator Eko.

Cover_Pancho_Villa_Takes_ZacatecasPancho Villa Takes Zacatecas (published by Restless Books in an English translation by Nina Arazoza) celebrates so many things Mexican. For one, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Zacatecas—the bloodiest engagement of the Mexican Revolution—which took place on June 23, 1914.

Under the leadership of General Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the insurgent División del Norte fought the federal troops of President Victoriano Huerta. By routing Huerta’s army and taking the city’s strategic railroad junction, the revolutionaries forced Huerta’s resignation. Afterward, the Division of the North proceeded to Mexico City to meet Emiliano Zapata’s troops coming from the south. Villa’s victory was soon memorialized in the Mexican corrido, “La toma de zacatecas” (listen here).

Paco Ignacio Taibo’s brief text deploys a fictional character, Colonel Montejo, loosely based on a historical figure, to tell the story of Villa’s famous victory. In the U.S., Pancho Villa is remembered as the “bandit” who shot up and burned Columbus, New Mexico, killing eighteen people, which prompted President Wilson to send General John J. Pershing and 5000 troops into Chihuahua in pursuit. But in Mexico Villa is a revered revolutionary leader.

The illustrations by Eko are the most impressive aspect of this novel. I was unfamiliar with this Mexican artist, but it turns out he has done work for the New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and other newspapers. Here, his inspiration comes from the great Mexican caricaturist, José Guadeloupe Posada. Posada used Day of the Dead calaveras to lampoon the political corruption at the height of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and during the chaos that followed in the days of the revolution.

posada-revolution

Posada’s depiction of the Mexican Revolution.

In an interview published by Restless Books, Eko says: “Posada to me is the first urban artist, a guerrilla for art. His work is made for the streets and the people. He uses the cheapest paper and makes his prints everyday with gossip, murders, and political criticism. Posada is the teacher of Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and all those new artists. But Posada is different because he worked to the limit, in the middle of a war.”

In Eko’s style there is also a nod to the great muralists of the Mexican Revolution: Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera, as can be seen in the page below.

A page from "Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas."

A page from “Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas.”

I was somewhat apprehensive buying a graphic novel as an eBook. On an old Kindle the illustrations are okay, but on an iPad they come through crisply, and the ability to enlarge them makes it even easier to admire their many fine details.

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Those French!

Is it any wonder that not one but two words in English for a social climber—arriviste and parvenu—come from the French? Our language is peppered with borrowed terms that provide nuanced derision in respect to class and wealth: nouveau riche, bourgeois, and gauche are but a few.

I can see why the French economist Thomas Picketty, who has made his name with a study of wealth inequality, was fascinated with Honoré de Balzac’s novel Père Goriot. It’s as if Balzac’s characters epitomize many of these class-based pejoratives.

Balzac by Rodin Photo Credit: Musée Rodin

Balzac by Rodin
Photo Credit: Musée Rodin

Balzac was one of the great fathers of the realistic novel. In The Human Comedy, a series of eighteen novels in which characters appear and reappear, he depicts the complexities of French society between Napoleon’s reign and the Revolution of 1848. As Dickens dramatized life in the sooty, foggy, wretched, have-and-have-not world of Victorian London, so Balzac documented the pompous, greedy, stratified and amoral society of Paris during the Bourbon Restoration. The French Revolution may have toppled the ancien régime, but deference to status and wealth never disappeared.

In Cousin Bette, my favorite of his novels, Balzac targets the power struggle between the sexes. Men may wield power through the laws and purse strings, but clever women survive by charming and manipulating them—husbands and lovers alike. As Balzac sees it, the men are vain, foolish and lustful, making them easy marks of feminine guile.

In Père Goriot, Balzac’s focus is on love and money. Old Goriot, a widowed vermicelli merchant now living in a seedy boarding house, has doted on his two daughters all his life. Because of the large dowries Goriot provided them, both are married to noblemen and treat their father with shameful ingratitude.

578367Enter Eugène Rastignac, a law student from a “good” but impoverished family, who arrives in Paris to make his fortune. Settling into the same boarding house, he befriends old Goriot. Eugène’s one distant relation in the capital happens to be a baroness, and he relies on her to make his debut into high society. At a ball hosted by the baroness he meets one of Goriot’s daughters, the Madame de Restaud, and becomes determined to win her heart. When rebuffed (she already has a lover), he takes aim with a vengeance at the other daughter, the Madame de Nucingen.

It’s a cynical and very French interpretation of love that Balzac puts forth. Eugène—so intent on gaining a foothold in society—convinces himself that he loves Madame de Nucingen. And Goriot, in his fondness for Eugène and his antipathy for his sons-in-law, encourages Eugène in his seduction. Goriot hopes Eugène’s attentions will make his daughter happy and enable him to see her more often, or at least hear about her from Eugène.

Meanwhile, one of the more interesting characters in the book, the shady criminal Vautrin who also lives in the boarding house, expounds a truly cynical worldview. Counseling Eugène to marry an heiress (which he is willing to arrange for a fee), Vautrin whispers like the devil in his ear:

There are fifty thousand young men in your position at this moment, all bent as you are on solving one and the same problem—how to acquire a fortune rapidly. You are but a unit in the aggregate. You can guess, therefore, what efforts you must make, how desperate the struggle is. There are not fifty thousand good positions for you; you must fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot. Do you know how a man makes his way here? By brilliant genius or by skillful corruption. You must either cut your way through these masses of men like a cannon ball, or steal among them like a plague. Honesty is nothing to the purpose.

Vautrin nearly persuades the young student: “Vautrin is right, success is virtue!” Eugène says to himself in a moment of financial frustration. But he subsequently convinces himself that with Madame de Nucingen he can find both love and fortune; it’s this naiveté that Balzac gradually chips away through the course of the novel. No one comes away unscathed, except perhaps old Goriot, whose devotion to his daughters in the face of the most heartless cruelty is the least credible aspect of this retelling of King Lear.

Early on, Balzac hints at his theme in a description of the garden of the boarding house where Eugène, Vautrin and old Goriot live:

On the opposite wall, at the further end of the graveled walk, a green marble arch was painted once upon a time by a local artist, and in this semblance of a shrine a statue representing Cupid is installed; a Parisian Cupid, so blistered and disfigured that he looks like a candidate for one of the adjacent hospitals, and might suggest an allegory to lovers of symbolism.

An allegory, indeed. But not just for Parisians. Which may explain why so many of those derisive French words have entered our own language.

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Summer in the Sierra Nevada

IMG_3670

Photo credit: P. Lane

My hiking buddies and I recently completed our annual weeklong backpacking trip into the wilderness. This year we branched out from the beautiful Pacific Northwest and travelled down to the Sierra Nevada. None of us had hiked there before, and we’d heard great things about it. We selected a 60-mile loop that took us onto a section of the John Muir Trail, which stretches 210 miles between the Yosemite Valley and Mt. Whitney. Of course, I took my Kindle along, because after camp is set up, dinner eaten and the day’s ration of bourbon sipped, it’s still only 7 p.m. I wanted to read something tied to the place, and what could be more appropriate than John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra.

Muir, the Scottish-born, Wisconsin-raised naturalist, conservationist, and founding president of the Sierra Club, first arrived in the Sierra Nevada in 1869. As an excuse to wander far and wide, sketching and taking notes on the geology and botany of the mountains, he joined a group of sheep-herders moving their flock to the high-country pastures to graze. Muir annotated this trip in detail but didn’t actually publish the journal until 1911. By that time he was a celebrated man, the friend of the railroad baron Edward H. Harriman (who persuaded Muir to write about his life in the first place) and President Teddy Roosevelt (whom Muir persuaded to preserve the Yosemite Valley as a national park).

Greatly influenced by the transcendental writings of Emerson and Thoreau, Muir’s journal of that first summer is filled with wonder and awe at the pristine wilderness he found in the Sierra. This wonder, however, is tempered by his scientific training (he had studied the natural sciences at the University of Wisconsin in Madison), a curious and observant mind, and a keen ability to describe what he saw. For the armchair traveller, his journal makes a splendid introduction to this spectacular high-country wilderness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo credit: T. Gething

“Here are many fine meadows imbedded in the woods, gay with Lilium parvum and its companions; the elevation, about eight thousand feet, seems to be suited for it–saw specimens that were a foot or two higher than my head.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: T. Gething

Photo credit: T. Gething

“Sunshine over all; no breath of wind to stir the brooding calm. Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: P. Lane

Photo credit: P. Lane

“The magnitudes of the rocks and trees and streams are so delicately harmonized they are mostly hidden. Sheer precipices three thousand feet high are fringed with tall trees growing close like grass on the brow of a lowland hill…. Waterfalls, five hundred to one or two thousand feet high, are so subordinated to the mighty cliffs over which they pour that they seem like wisps of smoke, gentle as floating clouds, though their voices fill the valley and make the rocks tremble.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: P. Lane

Photo credit: P. Lane

“The air is distinctly fragrant with balsam and resin and mint—every breath of it a gift we may well thank God for. Who could ever guess that so rough a wilderness should yet be so fine, so full of good things.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: P. Lane

Photo credit: P. Lane

“The surface of the ground, so dull and forbidding at first sight, besides being rich in plants, shines and sparkles with crystals: mica, hornblende, feldspar, quartz, tourmaline. The radiance in some places is so great as to be fairly dazzling, keen lance rays of every color flashing, sparkling in glorious abundance, joining the plants in their fine, brave beauty-work…”

—John Muir

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A multimedia presentation on my novel

UAFF

Last spring I was privileged to have Under a False Flag used as part of the curriculum for a course in contemporary Latin American history taught by Professor Michael Hall at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Georgia. I suspect that’s how this little multimedia presentation by Tara Kemp came about. As an author, it’s both fascinating and satisfying to see how a reader approached my book. The YouTube links Tara included in her presentation are excellent background pieces on Chile before the coup and capture many of the conflicts found in the novel. Thank you, Tara!

Tara Kemp’s presentation on Under a False Flag

 

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Storytelling—a delicate balance

Every now and then a news item appears about the discovery of some remote Amazon tribe that survives in a pristine, Neolithic state. The stories occur less and less, as fewer and fewer tribes remain untouched by the modern world. Disease and development have devastated most.

Photo: machiguenga.wordpress.com

Photo: machiguenga.wordpress.com

What is lost in this process of destruction? Does it matter if a Neolithic people, their entire language and culture, is lost or transformed? Is there anything that these peoples, so separated by superstition and suspicion, can teach us? For their own good, should we gradually introduce them to our world and ways or leave them to subsist in isolation in the rain forest?

53931These are questions that inevitably surface as you read Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, first published in 1987 as El hablador. The Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian novelist was ahead of his time writing what might be described as an ecological novel. For the questions he raises are about the delicate balance of an entire ecosystem, of a people and the environment that sustains them, where the essential tool for group survival is the knowledge passed down through storytelling.

Vargas Llosa approaches this complex issue through the first-person narrative of a Peruvian novelist and documentary film producer who while traveling to Florence, Italy stumbles upon an exhibit of photographs of the Machiguenga tribe in the Amazon. It’s a tribe he knows firsthand, and one photo in particular sends him reeling back in time to his university-days friendship with Saul “Mascarita” Zuratas. Mascarita, a Peruvian of Jewish descent with a face stained by a birthmark, became obsessed with the Machiguenga as an anthropology student and disappeared from the narrator’s life years before. In the photo in the exhibition, the narrator believes he has seen the stained face of his old friend, dressed like a Machiguenga, at the center of a circle serving as a tribal storyteller. Could it really be him?

Vargas Llosa is a daring writer, always willing to experiment with narrative form. In this novel he makes a “qualitative leap in reality” (a phrase Vargas Llosa borrowed from Hegel to describe this narrative device in his primer on fiction writing, Letters to a Young Novelist) by shifting between two narrators, one being the novelist in Italy recalling his old friend in Peru, and the second being an anonymous storyteller narrating the stories of the Machiguengas. It’s a bold move and Vargas Llosa succeeds in the enormous challenge of creating the magical and dreamlike narrative of the Machiguenga genesis.

This is a book of ideas, of two “communicating vessels” (to use another Vargas Llosa term for his narrative device) that try to elevate those ideas. And in this sense Vargas Llosa succeeded. But, for me, he failed to deliver an engaging story. The novel lacks tension because the novelist-narrator reveals where the story is going in the first few chapters and there are no surprises or conflicts. Nor is there any significant character development in either protagonist, although the anonymous storyteller (big spoiler, it’s Mascarita) does become amusingly creative, embellishing Machiguenga myths with stories from Kafka and the Old Testament. As accomplished as the writing is, ultimately these weaknesses led to my disappointment.

At one point in the story the novelist-narrator describes how he struggled to write a book about his experiences in the Amazon but somehow his notes on his encounters with the Machiguengas always failed to come together. One senses that Vargas Llosa struggled with the same problem. Storytelling is its own ecosystem, requiring a delicate balance of tension, development and unpredictability; it requires more than ideas, which are often better presented in an essay. For this reader, the writer failed at the most important task of storytelling—to beguile his audience.

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Austen, Balzac and the “dismal science”

I’m about halfway through a light summer read—French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which so far has been thoroughly accessible and engaging.

18736925Piketty’s surprise bestseller, which in 577 heavily footnoted pages analyzes centuries of data, is an important new assessment of economic growth, capital formation, wealth and income distribution. As you might expect from the title’s nod to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the book has been praised by liberals and attacked by conservatives, although it seems to me those who have nitpicked Piketty’s data are overlooking the forest for the trees.

As Piketty says numerous times in the book, even if you disagree with the exact percentages, the trends are difficult to refute. Over time, the distribution of wealth has followed a U-shaped curve. From the start of the Industrial Revolution to the eve of World War 1, wealth and income inequality remained at consistently high levels. Then, between 1913 and 1970, due to the century’s political, social and economic cataclysms, both values declined to their lowest levels. But since 1980 they have risen again, according to Piketty to levels approaching those at the end of the 19th century. Whether inequality is good, bad or inconsequential remains to be seen, but I suspect Piketty will spend the second half of the book arguing that it’s bad.

My appreciation of Piketty’s presentation has been enhanced by his use of literature to supplement his research, in particular Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park and Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot. There’s something reassuring about an economist who finds anecdotal evidence for his thesis in the humanities.

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

The point Piketty makes is that Austen and Balzac demonstrated an acute awareness of money—especially the amounts of wealth and income needed to be a person of means—that readers of the time would not fail to understand implicitly.

“In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, money was everywhere,” Piketty writes, “not only as an abstract force but above all as a palpable, concrete magnitude. Writers frequently described the income and wealth of their characters in francs or pounds, not to overwhelm us with numbers but because these quantities established a character’s social status in the mind of the reader. Everyone knew what standard of living these numbers represented.”

Austen’s protagonists, for instance, fully understood the levels of wealth and kinds of income, whether from rents or investments (certainly not from labor among the upper class), their suitors possessed. Piketty asserts that modern-day writers, after a century of inflation and the consequential loss of our monetary bearings, cannot assume their readers share the same understanding of money. (I remember worrying about this when writing Under a False Flag; the 1972 dollar amounts of CIA covert actions in Chile seemed so paltry, I was afraid they would look ludicrous to the reader.)

Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Piketty continues: “One could easily multiply examples by drawing on American, German and Italian novels, as well as the literature of all the other countries that experienced this long period of monetary stability. Until World War I, money had meaning, and novelists did not fail to exploit it, explore it, and turn it into a literary subject.”

Money does sometimes play an important role in modern novels, but in a way that probably strengthens Piketty’s argument. Think The Great Gatsby, where Gatsby’s wealth must be shown through the commodities consumed—shirts and cars and house size. And in more contemporary novels, money is often imbued with nebulous, shifting, post-modern meaning. Think JR by William Gaddis or Money by Martin Amis. Money becomes a concept, an illusion, that has little to do with defining social status and everything to do with gaming the system or the reader.

Piketty is not arguing for a return to the gold standard; he is simply making the point, in preparation for other more important points to come, that economic growth before World War 1 was slower, inflation was virtually non-existent, and investment income (the return on capital) grew faster than income from labor, thus enabling wealth and income inequality to remain high. It’s a situation he fears we are returning to, as most economic forecasts for developed nations indicate a slowdown in growth to rates approximating those of earlier centuries.

It’s complicated stuff, and there’s much more to it than I have touched on here. Piketty does a fine job explaining his thesis, building a persuasive argument in clear, logical steps, but perhaps what we need is a new Austen or Balzac to show us what this rise in wealth and income inequality really means to society. Or is one already out there? If you think so, please let me know. Meanwhile, I may go back to the originals with newfound appreciation.

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Life under the regime

Maybe it’s from growing up during the Cold War, but I always imagined life in an authoritarian state to be like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, laying bricks in the Siberian cold, your stomach empty, your fingertips frozen. Or perhaps like Nineteen Eighty-Four, with Big Brother’s thought police around every corner and rats thrust in your face. Or the solitary confinement of Darkness at Noon, facing daily interrogations until you finally confess, only to be marched out into the prison yard and shot.

Those are indeed possibilities, especially for dissidents. But what is life like for the multitude of ordinary citizens who must adapt to a system where the paternalistic authority of the state determines the most intimate decisions? How do individuals respond? How do they survive?

Two novels written close together in time but about two very different regimes and cultures give some insight into these questions.

In Ha Jin’s Waiting, a novel about life in China from the 1960s to the 1980s, we have one answer. Ha Jin came to the U.S. in 1985 to study English literature at Brandeis University. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, he decided to stay here. Like those extraordinary exiles before him, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, Jin chose to write in English. Waiting, his second novel, won the National Book Award in 1999.

WaitingWaiting is a quiet tale that slyly criticizes China’s post-revolutionary society. It’s the story of a repressed love affair between an army doctor and a nurse in a provincial hospital. The doctor, Lin Kong, is a conscientious, ambitious and educated man who loves books, even prohibited ones from Russia and America. He is also married, an arranged marriage made at his parents’ request, to an uneducated peasant woman. His wife still lives in his native village, tending their small farm and raising their daughter. But when the doctor meets Manna Wu, a single nurse who borrows a book and responds in kind to his polite, never forward, always self-conscious friendship, a flame is kindled.

At the time their relationship begins, in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, an affair would be considered illegal as well as immoral, a non-conforming action that risked punishment, possibly transfer to a harsher assignment and certainly career suicide. Yet, per the hospital commissar’s arbitrary rules, divorce is only permissible after eighteen years of separation. Simply walking outside the hospital grounds with a fellow worker of the opposite sex is not allowed. Discreetly, the couple take this risk to nurture, through several cycles of intensity and misunderstanding, what becomes an eighteen-year platonic relationship.

Even then, their wait isn’t over. Each year the doctor goes home to ask his wife for a divorce. Each time she agrees, but then at court she balks, stumbling under the provincial magistrate’s interrogation and her own mixed emotions or bending to the social pressure exerted by her brother who seeks monetary damages from the doctor.

Waiting is based on a true story Jin heard while serving in the army. He writes in a plain style that owes much to Hemingway, but the story is pure Turgenev or Chekhov. Jin subtly evokes the stranglehold of a political system that values social strictures and the dictates of revolutionary idealism over individual freedom and happiness.

At times you want to shake the characters for not taking action, for not asserting themselves, for living so long with their repressed feelings, for wasting years and years of potential happiness. And then you realize, yes, this is what it must be like to live in a society that does not see beyond the collective. The ending of Waiting is as ambivalent and as frustrating as you might expect.

Dirty Havana TrilogyDirty Havana Trilogy (1998) by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez voices a different kind of frustration. Gutiérrez still lives in Cuba and writes in Spanish, although censorship prevents his books from being published there. (This novel is beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer into a slangy English that is pitch perfect.) Gutiérrez depicts life in Cuba during the “crisis” of the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union has collapsed, ending its subsidies to the Castro regime, and the Cuban economy is in utter shambles.

The trilogy is really a three-part collection of short stories told from the largely autobiographical point of view of one Pedro Juan, a radio journalist who quit his job because he was not allowed to report the truth. Pedro Juan lives in a shack on the rooftop of a crumbling apartment building amid the decay, corruption and filth of Havana. With bawdy defiance, he chronicles his efforts to survive, whether that’s working as a garbage man or a janitor, stealing lobsters at night from state-owned traps, or serving as a pimp, a gigolo, a reseller of junk, or a dope peddler.

No matter what job he cobbles together, the overarching focus of his life is sexual gratification, and because of that Gutiérrez has been compared to Henry Miller. But in Gutiérrez’s case, the profligate sex is clearly a metaphor for life under the regime: if you aren’t screwing someone, you’re getting screwed.

With Gutiérrez the political criticism is always near the surface. The city he paints, the lives he describes, are transformed by his defiant sarcasm, visceral earthiness and sexual bravado, but what he reveals is devastating: the willingness of desperate people to prostitute themselves in every way imaginable in order to survive as the state fails to provide for even the most basic needs. This portrait—not the tourist photos of vintage cars and quaint art-deco mansions along the Malecón—is the disastrous endgame of the revolution. A world where the only escapes from poverty, starvation, violence and death are sex, superstition, rum and the carnal rhythms of salsa.

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“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”

My wife and I just returned from North Carolina, where we toured the Thomas Wolfe House in Asheville. The museum occupies the sprawling, many-gabled boarding house his mother once ran for visitors (many of them tuberculosis patients) seeking the cool mountain air. Wolfe memorialized the house as “Dixieland” in his deeply autobiographical first novel Look Homeward, Angel.

Thomas_Wolfe's_Home

The real “Dixieland” (Photo: Wikipedia)

Our guide said that fewer and fewer people coming for the tour have read Thomas Wolfe. This surprised and saddened me. When I read Look Homeward, Angel in my late teens, I marveled at the effusive Whitmanesque language—more poetry than prose—that energized every page. Certain scenes, in particular his brother’s death, are so vivid and sad, they can still bring tears to my eyes.

Wolfe begins Look Homeward, Angel with a prose poem that echoes again and again in the 500-page book:

…a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.

Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among the bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

20317104In rhapsodic prose Thomas Wolfe captured the voracious youthful yearning of coming of age in an isolated Southern town at the turn of the 20th Century, the tug and tussle of a large fractious family struggling to make ends meet, the lonesome whistle of a late-night train heading into the vast world beyond the encircling hills, the smell of coffee and the taste of pancakes in a diner amid the drowsy conversation of tired newspapermen as the morning edition arrives with the first rays of the sun. The love and hunger of it all, etched upon the memory, unforgettable and lost.

Wolfe has been compared to Marcel Proust in his struggle to capture the detailed essence of his life. He loved the vast all-encompassing embrace of Walt Whitman’s poetry, but he equally admired the innovations of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which manage to compress a world into a day. Wolfe’s own uniquely American style, so profuse and personal, would influence Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury and Pat Conroy. Faulkner said he might have proven to be the best writer of his generation had he lived.

The story of Wolfe’s discovery by Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins is one of legend. Perkins, who had discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and launched the career of Ernest Hemingway, became a surrogate father to Wolfe. The towering six-foot-six North Carolinian, who sometimes wrote standing up using the top of his refrigerator as his desktop, arrived in New York and famously delivered an 1100-page loose-leaf first draft to Scribners. Over 330,000 words! With Perkins’ editing, it became Look Homeward, Angel, a book as sprawling as the boarding house Wolfe grew up in.

Because of the novel’s autobiographical nature (it included some 200 characters drawn from family, friends and Ashville citizens, and not all favorably), Wolfe dared not return to Asheville for eight years after its publication. He traveled to Europe and wrote Of Time and the River, an even bigger novel that continued where Look Homeward, Angel left off. It became a bestseller, although it is a less powerful story than Angel.

Thomas Wolfe (Photo: Wikipedia)

Thomas Wolfe (Photo: Wikipedia)

Critics began to say it was Perkins, not Wolfe, who was the genius behind the books (reminiscent of what people would say sixty years later about Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish). To prove himself, Wolfe broke with Scribners and went to Harper Brothers, where he basically wrote the same books over again in You Can’t Go Home Again, The Web and the Rock and The Hills Beyond, all published after his death in 1938, just shy of his 38th birthday. (According to our guide, Wolfe was on a ferry from Seattle going to British Columbia when he shared a flask of whiskey with another passenger. Wolfe subsequently contracted influenza, then pneumonia, which in turn exacerbated miliary tuberculosis probably acquired as a boy in his mother’s boarding house. Neurosurgury sent him into a coma from which he never recovered.)

Any and all of Wolfe’s novels are worth reading if only for those sections where his prose soars. But for those without the stamina for the novels, some of his finest writing can be found in his book of stories, From Death to Morning, which includes the superlative and experimental novella, The Web of Earth, about the birth of his twin brothers.

My sadness to hear that Wolfe is read less today was lightened by our excellent guide. He left us with some hopeful news and the prediction that Wolfe’s books would reach a new generation. A movie based on the prize-winning biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, about the stormy relationship between Perkins and Wolfe, is being filmed and scheduled for release in 2015. Titled Genius, it stars Colin Firth as Perkins and Jude Law as Wolfe. Perhaps a ghost, a great one, can come back again.

 

 

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“To make you see”—Essays on Conrad

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

I have always been a huge fan of Joseph Conrad; I even wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on Lord Jim. But it’s difficult for me to read him today because of the powerful sway (and negative effect) he has on my writing. Graham Greene felt the same way. “The heavy hypnotic style,” he called it.

Conrad has affected many writers that way. The Polish-born genius wrote his first novel at the age of 36, in English, after twenty years working as a merchant seaman in the Far East, Africa and South America. He not only became one of the great storytellers of his time, but also a remarkable stylist who expanded what fiction could do. In other words, he is the quintessential writer’s writer.

My college thesis concentrated on Conrad’s construction of character in Lord Jim, but in order to do that I had to read widely and intensively, both Conrad and the critics.

That wonderful excuse allowed me to trace the development of Conrad’s first-person narrative technique, in the guise of Charles Marlow, first in “Youth” and Heart of Darkness, then in Lord Jim, and later in Chance. I got to see how that technique added layers of perspective and irony to his tales, and how it was fundamental to the exploration of themes that preoccupied him. This literary innovation* became the model for some of the next century’s great novels, including Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.

Reading Conrad’s Nostromo that year, I got to experience one of the most harrowing existential episodes in modern literature, when the journalist Dacoud rows out to sea on the blackest of nights and sinks into the deepest of despairs.

I got to watch time stop and then explode in one of the most sophisticated political novels ever written, The Secret Agent.

I got to read Conrad’s remarkable prefaces, where he carefully distilled his aesthetic aims. His famous preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ not only defined his mission as a writer, but became the creed for those who followed in his wake:

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.”

If you have ever read The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, then you have come as close as you can, while sitting in an armchair, to experiencing the wrath of the sea.

That year I also read the academics who championed and critiqued Conrad: F.R. Leavis, who included a chapter on Conrad and Henry James in his hallmark of literary criticism, The Great Tradition; Dorothy Van Ghent, and her Harvard colleague, Albert J. Guerard, who wrote a fine book-length study, Conrad the Novelist; also Freudian critics, Marxist critics and others of uncertain pedigree.

589659What I didn’t know was that one of the foremost living Conrad scholars, Ian Watt, was busy writing his own book, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, which appeared a few years later, in 1979. Watt planned to write a second work on Conrad’s 20th Century output, but this never came to fruition. Instead, shortly after his death, Cambridge University Press published Essays on Conrad (2000). In this collection you can see Watt building the base for the larger work, always with meticulous research and a deep-seated knowledge of his subject.

In the first essay, Watt elaborates Conrad’s core themes of alienation and commitment. Suspicious of Progress and Civilization, and all too aware of the animal within man, Conrad set his best stories in hostile environments and scrutinized his characters’ actions under duress. The ones that do right, the ones that survive, are rarely the progressive or the dreamer or the sophisticated or the bookish.

In Typhoon, for example, which Watt considers a comic masterpiece, Captain McWhirr’s ponderous approach to duty brings his ship safely through the storm. And at the moment of crisis for the ‘Narcissus’, the old sailor Singleton, by staying at the helm, steadies a mutinous crew. In these unimaginative, unlearned men, whose first duty is to their ships’ passengers and crew, Watt sees two Conradian moral imperatives: tenacity and solidarity in the face of “coercive circumstance.” That phrase is actually the one Watt used to describe his own situation as a prisoner of war on the River Kwai (see my previous post), where Colonel Toosey’s tenacity and sense of solidarity ensured his men’s survival, but it applies equally to the unwanted situations Conrad depicts in his fiction.

Conrad has ridden several waves of criticism since his death in 1924. His reputation crested after the Second World War, when his modernism and influence on next-generation writers, his psychological insights and existential themes were highlighted and hailed.

The trough may have occurred during the surge of multiculturalism in the late seventies, when the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe branded Conrad “a bloody racist,” citing his stereotyping and lack of compassion for the Congolese victims in Heart of Darkness. Watt argues otherwise, although he does not entirely succeed in dismissing Achebe’s criticism.

Conrad was certainly not a racist in any active, conscious sense. But he was a staunch patriot of his adopted country, and he did hold some of the prevailing biases that bolstered the British Empire. (It’s telling that Conrad refused to write an affidavit in support of his old acquaintance from the Congo, the anti-imperialist Irish nationalist Roger Casement, when he was accused of treason.) But Conrad also understood that an individual’s tenacity and sense of solidarity must embrace all of humanity—all of us in the boat, so to speak—or those two positive attributes risk becoming their flip-side negatives: selfishness and exclusion. That’s the lesson Jim learns when, for his own survival, he jumps from the listing ‘Patna’, leaving the passengers, Mecca-bound pilgrims, to fend for themselves.

Several critics have argued that Conrad’s fiction declined in his later years. Watt is not one of them. He finds masterpieces in all phases of Conrad’s output, and moments of stylistic brilliance in even the weakest works. Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Conrad: “He could not write badly, one feels, to save his life.”

For me, Conrad’s success depended on his subject matter. I would argue he could not write about women to save his life. His female characters, with the possible exception of Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent, are helpless, two-dimensional creatures of romantic stereotype. Whenever Conrad ventured away from the heart of darkness and into the heart of romance, as he did more frequently in his later years, the result—no matter how well written—was diminished.

Conrad wanted popular and financial success, and he believed that by following the course set by Henry James he might achieve it. But Conrad was a skeptical realist, not a dramatist of social mores and subtle gender wars; he was a former sea captain with little affinity for the feminine mind. Far more than some dubious racism (a word which, Watt points out, did not exist in his day), this was his greatest weakness as a writer.

But when he stuck to isolated men in exotic locales or men isolated by their political ideals, when he stuck to sailors and steamships, and most of all when he stuck to the sea—then, Conrad always makes you see. And it is everything.

* Conrad was not alone in the development of this first-person story-within-a-story technique. His good friend and neighbor Henry James used a similar narrative device in The Turn of the Screw, published the same year (1898) as Conrad’s story “Youth,” which introduced Marlow. But with Marlow we have a narrator-observer’s haunted reflections on the events told, not simply a narrator who serves as a go-between for another’s story, as in James’ ghost story. One produces a subjective sense of witness, the other a protective layer of ambiguity.

 

 

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